On my recent trip to Vegas, I was thrilled to discover that Robert Klein was appearing at the Southpoint Casino’s showroom. I’ve been a fan of Klein since my teen years, a topic I covered here in 2005 when he guested on my radio show. So, I bought a pair of tickets and took my brother-in-law, who had never seen Klein in person.
I’m happy to say that the man who essentially kicked off the observational comedy genre more than 50 years ago still has great timing and material at 76. Much of his stuff these days is about his age, beginning with his opening song, “Colonoscopy.” Klein tours with his long-time piano player Bob Stein, who accompanied him on a couple of original song parodies and a few non-comic songs from Klein’s career, including two from the Broadway musical “They’re Playing Our Song” (for which he was nominated for a Best Actor Tony).
His act is full of nostalgia and there’s a lot of name-dropping in his stories, including the recently departed Neil Simon and Burt Reynolds. He also bemoaned the fact that his career in the last couple of decades has involved playing the father, not the lover, of actresses like Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Tilly, and Debra Messing.
Unlike many other comics, Klein has no opening act. If you’re there to see him, that’s who you get, and he doesn’t sell you short — he does a full 90 minutes, which a lot of younger comedians can’t do. I was disappointed to see that the showroom wasn’t full, and that he avoided talking about Trump entirely. That was a surprise, considering he used to include some political material in all of his shows, but perhaps in Vegas he has to play it more down the middle. The most political bit he did was about Larry Craig, the Idaho senator who was busted in an airport men’s room for lewd (gay) conduct — but that was in 2007, and whatever was funny about the story was fully drained (if you’ll pardon the expression) a long time ago.
Still, between his vintage material and his newer stuff, I can still describe Klein’s comedy in one word: smart. He’s a clever writer, with a pointed use of language, and an eye on the world that reveals the silly in even the smallest things. Watching him, you can see where comics like Jay Leno, Bill Maher, Elayne Boosler, and many more of succeeding generations got their inspiration (including newer comics who may not know that he influenced the people who motivated them). Just watch Klein’s episode of “Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee” to get a sense of how much Jerry Seinfeld reveres him. I bet there would be a long line of such people waiting to get up and praise Klein if the people who hand out the Mark Twain Prize For American Humor were ever smart enough to award it to him.
Klein took some criticism during his career for veering away from standup to do Broadway and movies. Not all of those projects were of the highest quality (the man was in two “Sharknado” sequels!), but he was in a few classics (“Hooper,” “The Owl and the Pussycat,” “Primary Colors”). His IMDb page doesn’t show many dormant years, so he has always worked — and is talented enough to have kept getting hired. Even when he wasn’t doing plays, musicals, TV shows, or movies, he could always get on a stage with nothing more than a microphone and make a crowd laugh.
Since his original vinyl albums (“Child Of The Fifties,” “Mind Over Matter,” “New Teeth”) are long out of print, I’ve ordered the boxed DVD set of the eight HBO standup specials he did over the course of 30 years (including that network’s first-ever) so I can enjoy them all over again.
Klein’s contemporaries George Carlin and Richard Pryor — who also helped comedy take a giant leap forward — are both long gone, but he’s still out there making people laugh, for which I am thankful.
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